Tampa Bay Rays
Shields takes lead to keep runners close
PORT CHARLOTTE - James Shields peeks over his left shoulder at the runner on first before bending at the waist in such an exaggerated dip, it appears he is trying to tie his shoelace while standing up. "A lot of people think it's just eyewash," the Rays pitcher said. "But I do it for a reason." Folding his body in such a manner allows Shields to turn his head and get a better look at the length of the runner's lead. A 9-foot lead, the runner is likely not running on the pitch. A 12-foot lead, the runner is generally off and running. Shields knows how to react to both. It's called controlling the running game, and it is a process Dick Bosman, the Rays' minor-league pitching coordinator, developed nearly 25 years ago."There are three ways to prevent, and I say prevent, I don't mean cut it down, I say prevent (stolen bases)," Bosman said. "That's how confident we are with this program and this system here." The first way is the slide-step delivery. The second is to deliver the ball to the plate in 1.3 seconds. The third is to identify the lead. If a pitcher thinks the runner has plans to run, then he can step off the mound, throw over to first base or hold the ball so long the batter calls a timeout. "It's not rocket science by any means," Bosman said. Opposing runners attempted 118 steals against the Rays last season and were successful 90 times. That .763 percent success rate was higher than the .740 percent of American League base stealers. That's why Bosman leads Rays pitchers through drills this spring aimed at controlling the running game. "Home runs are going down a bit, the other stuff is coming up," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We have to be able to combat it." Especially within the division, since the Yankees, Red Sox and Orioles have added some speed in recent years to go with the power. Bosman has been teaching his technique to minor-league pitchers in the Rays system since he joined the organization in 2001. By then, Bosman had more than 15 years to hone his philosophy that began during the 1986 season when he was the pitching coach for the Chicago White Sox. "I had an aging Carlton Fisk behind the plate and guys on the mound that were 1.7, 1.8 to the plate and guys were running and running all over the place," Bosman said. "I did it out of self preservation. I figured I better do this or I'm going to get fired. Well I got fired anyway, but the learning process had begun." Shields joined the Rays organization in 2001 and immediately began learning Bosman's system. Since reaching the major leagues, opposing runners have a .609 success rate against Shields. "I'm a firm believer if you're able to control the running game, you're going to take off at least one full point on your ERA," Shields said. "Statistically, you're not going to allow many stolen bases, you're not going to allow runners in scoring position. You're going to set-up the double play a little easier that way you minimize your pitches and pitch deeper in games." Yes, there's more to holding a runner close to the base than preventing steals. "You can look back at the games that we lost last summer and you can pick out a lot of different runs that shouldn't have scored because of transgressions, if you will, in that area," Bosman said. It's all about identifying the lead, which is why Shields dips so low. Peeking over his left shoulder provides only a peripheral view, which he said does not allow him to measure distance, only movement. Now, take the runner's lead and factor in the inning, score, number of outs, count on the batter, the runner's speed, how fast the catcher can throw the ball to second (the Rays want 2.0 seconds), and the pitcher has a pretty good idea of what the runner is thinking. "It's about being 100 percent on the runner and then 100 percent on the batter," said Jeff Niemann, who allowed the most stolen bases (24 out of 30 attempts) on the staff last season. "As soon as you get that runner stopped and you're confident he's not going anywhere you can concentrate on the hitters. You can't split your concentration because that will lead to a mistake on your pitching end, which can be a lot worse than one stolen base."